Mike Fromowitz
Oct 20, 2014

The value of nothing: In defense of artists and designers

“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing." ―Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

The value of nothing: In defense of artists and designers

I’ve always had a soft spot for art directors, designers and computer graphic artists. This week, after interviewing several for jobs at our agency, I learned that many of them have been seeking a full-time position because they could not make a living off their freelance work. They were being paid so little that they could barely scrape by. 

One disenchanted graphic artist asked me the following: "Can a graphic artist really compete with the rest of the world in terms of wages? Can a graphic artist and his friends live on $10 an hour?" Or on $8 an hour five years from now?" Globalization means falling labour costs for the foreseeable future and wages are anything but rising.

There is a reality shafting these creative people, namely that everyone wants the finished product they produce, yet no one wants to pay what the work is really worth. Everyone has a computer these days, so no matter whether you have the talent or not, a considerable number of marketers seem to think they can do their own graphics and copywriting. People, at large, like to believe that they are creative on some level, even if their profession has absolutely nothing to do with design. 

As long as graphic designers and computer artists are up against this high level of client confidence, they will always encounter non-designer clients who will not only try to intervene in the design process but who will also insist that your services aren’t worth as much as you say they are.  They may also think ‘it can’t be that hard to do, can it?’ 

One graphic artist I recently spoke with has had to try her hand at selling car insurance and working in a bar to make ends meet.  She is a designer who believes in creating simple, clean and elegant designs. Being the professional she is, she makes her work look so easy, and yet a non-designer has no idea how much time, blood, sweat, and tears actually went into creating the work. Often times too, the marketer in charge of the design budget has no idea what actually goes into creating good design and ends up underfunding the design project because no one has any idea what design really is. 

Seems that if these people can’t make a living doing the graphics they love to do, what message does this send out to all those aspiring to work in the advertising and design industries? In a society where worth is judged by price, what are we saying to people when we won’t pay them for their craft?

A recent article I read in the Guardian reported that professional writers’ salaries in Britain were dropping to all time lows, falling almost 30% over the past eight years to $20,000. Who the hell can live on that?  Yah, I can hear some of you left brainers saying “They didn’t have to be graphic artists, computer designers, art directors, or creative directors. They could have gone to university for a degree and had a good job as an accountant, a lawyer or a dentist.”

As consumers, every time we go to a shop or to a mall, we expect the place to be filled with the products we can’t seem to live without: books, electronics, music, computers,  fashion clothing and more. Someone has to produce the graphics and the communications to promote them.

The graphic designer I spoke of earlier told me that in her seven years as a freelancer,  he came across several clients who refused to pay him what his work was really worth. He said he had to lower his fees or lose the project all together. Listening to his story, you might think that there’s no one out there who knows the value of good design. Fact is, so many designers compete on price that those who want to compete on quality often feel left out.

It’s really a question of value. Do we value artists and designers for what they do? If we do, I think its time to make some noise about it, because all too often the subject is avoided as embarrassing or irrelevant to the process. Money is how our culture defines value, and being told that what you do has little to no “value” is quite frankly, very demoralizing. Many clients just don’t see what the big deal is about design, and they’ll often go for the cheapest, rather than the best. Of course, it isn’t all the clients’ fault. The design community has a well-known problem with designers undervaluing and underpricing their own work, and by consequence, decreasing the market value of design in general.

Next time your car breaks down, bring it into the shop and tell the mechanic you want them to fix it for free. Or better yet, tell your electrician you don’t have much budget and offer him 25% of his normal rate and see how long he stays at your house. Just because you are dealing with a graphic “artist” and not a lawyer or a doctor, doesn’t mean their talents aren’t worth the money.

Mike Fromowitz


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